by Brian T. Lynch, MSW
Wealth disparity has a profound, relativistic impact in human societies and this is worth understanding. Even in the most egalitarian societies where everything is shared, there are subtle differences in the distribution of goods and services. These small differences convey powerful social messages that are keenly felt by all its members. These messages impact social interactions and the social order. Wealth distribution has powerful symbolic meaning in every society, large or small, rich or poor.
When the actual material differences in wealth are subtle, the costs or benefits conferred by wealth distribution are limited to social perceptions and its impact on social order or governance. These material differences are not existential threats to the socially disadvantaged. However, as the actual material differences between members of society grows, the scarcity of essential resources for some may follow. This becomes ever more consequential as it increases the efforts needed to assure survival. It introduces more uncertainty and decreases the sense of personal control. Distribution induced disparity can grow to the point where it can even become life threaten. Additionally, the social power differential grows to the point where social relationships by the advantaged towards the disadvantaged can become exploitive and extractive.
Under conditions of extreme wealth disparity there are physical and psychological impacts on both the powerful and less powerful. The Socially disadvantaged undergo significant stress and will exhibit all the symptoms and conditions associated with chronic stress (alcoholism, drug abuse, depression, maladaptive behaviors, obesity, child abuse, poor health outcomes, etc.). What is important to understand is that it is the disparity in wealth that induces social stress, not the absolute measure of wealth. Extreme wealth disparity becomes pathological in all societies, both rich or poor. This appears to have been true throughout history. Evidence of the corrosive effects of social disparity has even been demonstrated in research studying the impact of dominance on subordinate primate populations, so this appears to be a natural phenomenon.
Extreme wealth disparity is a threat to society. This fact is underappreciated by many. And distribution induced shortages don’t need to be at starvation levels before reaching critical mass, especially in wealthy countries like ours. Pundits have used this starvation metric or comparisons of our poverty to that found in poor countries to dismiss the current threat we face from rapidly growing wealth disparity. A better measure of our social instability is the health and welfare of the nation’s poor. The ranks of the poor are growing and their welfare is rapidly deteriorating. Here we find a conspiracy of silence in the main stream press. The symptoms of poverty induced stress have been reinterpreted as moral weaknesses and personal failings for which the poor have no one but themselves to blame. Both the unfair distribution of current wages and the redistribution of wealth through taxes to assist the poor are almost taboo subjects. To raise these issues is to be accused of inciting class warfare, which is exactly what has been raging for decades to bring us to this point.
The last time America experienced such enormous wealth disparity we were fortunate that the worst consequence was the Great Depression and not a total social collapse. The Great Recession of 2008 is an early warning of what will happen if we don’t correct our current wealth imbalance. So far the alarm bells are ringing but the public address system is still on mute.